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The last shot for women's pro soccer

Yahoo Sports

At the turn of the millennium, the first incarnation of a fully professional women's soccer league in the United States began with a wave of publicity, grand expectations and a million reasons why the product would work. Just three years later, it ended with a sorrowful wave goodbye, a bunch of shattered dreams and an opportunity lost.

And what about those million reasons geared towards success, the biggest of which was the 1999 Women's World Cup triumph by the U.S.? In the end, there were 100 times that many reasons why the Women's United Soccer Association collapsed – as in the number of dollars blown on the failed enterprise.

Fast forward to 2008. Rising from that spectacular pile of ashes is Women's Professional Soccer, a smaller, frugal and much more sensible endeavour than its arrogant and defunct older sister.

Still a year away from kickoff, WPS has no brazen predictions of packed stadiums and huge television ratings or boasts of how a prominent spot on the national sporting landscape is inevitable. The new league has a much better grasp on reality with a plan focused on measured progress.

"We know we are not going to get another shot at this," WPS chief executive officer Tonya Antonucci said. "We have to get it right this time. There is no going back.

"That is why we can't afford to get ahead of ourselves and set targets that are unrealistic. I firmly believe there is a place for this league, but it is about finding our niche market and growing steadily."

Such an honest appraisal is rare in the pro sports business. Some may argue that Antonucci is imposing her own glass ceiling on WPS by not claiming to be aiming higher. But if women's soccer fans were sick of being lied to and deceived, this time they are getting the truth. Time will tell if they can handle it.

Certainly, there is no indication of entitlement. Antonucci knows that it really doesn't matter whether women's soccer deserves its own pro league or whether, given participation numbers in the U.S, there simply should be one.

The brutal fact is that if she, the new team owners and the players on the field do not pull together to manufacture something far more economically viable than its predecessor, there won't be a professional league for women.

"There is nothing Title IX about us," said Antonucci, referring to the law that mandates gender equity in high school and college athletics. "It is up to us to prove there is a market for this league. No one is going to do it for us."

This time, there is no standout superstar such as Mia Hamm, the retired soccer icon whose silhouette makes up the WPS logo (a la Jerry West in the NBA's). Even so, if the U.S. can win a gold medal at the Beijing Olympics, that feat would provide a perfect and timely injection of interest ahead of the WPS launch.

"This is coming at a good time," U.S. captain Christie Rampone said. "We don't have as many big-name players, so we have to make sure it is strong and exciting and that, this time, it is here to stay."

When WUSA folded, more than 100 players suddenly had to look elsewhere for their livelihood and the failed enterprise took an emotional toll on many.

"I couldn't hold back the tears," said Heather Mitts, who played for the Philadelphia Charge. "I was devastated because we had the right product and people who loved the league, but the right business plan was not there."

One key factor for WPS will be in knowing which type of audience to target. Where as Major League Soccer is starting – to its approval – to gather appeal among a more knowledgeable and passionate soccer clientele, WPS will look to foster a primarily family atmosphere.

"We want dads and their daughters, moms and their daughters, and whole families to come along," said Antonucci, a former director of Yahoo! Sports and college soccer player at Stanford. "We also want to attract more women fans, and also men who want to come along because they both admire our players' skills and find them attractive to watch."

So far, seven teams are in place, with scope for an eighth to be added in the next few months. Some links with MLS will be created naturally. The Los Angeles franchise will play at the Home Depot Center, and the Chicago club at Toyota Park. Dallas is currently in negotiations with Pizza Hut Park, while several teams will play at college venues.

"Last time around, it was felt that renting out expensive stadiums was affordable and practical," Antonucci said. "Now we want to do things differently and we believe we can sustain this for years to come."